Ratnottama Sengupta, eminent journalist and daughter of Bengali writer Nabendu Ghosh, has been a force behind translating Bengali literature and bringing it to the doorstep of those who do not know the language. In this exclusive, she discusses how translations impact the world of literature.
I have often been asked, “Nabendu Ghosh was a literary figure and a screenwriter. How much importance did he place on translation?” Truthfully, because he was a literary person, my father placed a lot of importance on translations which, as he once pointed out, has given us access to almost all the first books in a bevy of Indian languages.
Let me elaborate. Adi Kavi Valmiki, the harbinger poet in Sanskrit literature, composed the original – ‘mool’ – Ramayan long before the first century BC. But Krittibas Ojha’s 15th century rendition in Bengali ‘Panchali’ style is not merely a rewording of the original epic, it gives a description of Bengal’s society and culture in the Middle Ages. It also explores the concept of Bhakti which later contributed to the emergence of Vaishnavism in the Gangetic belt.
This is said to have had a profound impact on the literature of the surrounding region. In Bihar of 16th century Goswami Tulsidas heightened the Bhakti quotient as he retold Ramayan in Hindi, as Ramcharit Manas. The same happened in Orissa. Earlier it had been adapted, with plot twists and thematic adaptations, in the 12th century Tamil Ramavataram; 14th century Telugu Sri Ranganatha Ramayanam; several Kannada versions, starting in 12th century; Ramacharitam in Malayalam; into Marathi also around this time.
My father had inculcated in us this love for multiple languages when I was about ten. As we all sat around after dinner, he would read from these texts – Valmiki’s Ramayan, Tulsi’s Ramcharit Manas, The Old Testament from the Bible, Buddhist Jataka Tales, and Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita wherein Mahendra Nath Gupta recounts, word for Bengali word, the conversations and activities of the 19th century Indian mystic. Published in five volumes between 1902 and 1910, this work summing up the life philosophy of Ramkrishna Paramahans through simple anecdotes and parables, has been translated into English and Hindi.
Before that, at the young age of nine, I was also initiated into the crème de la crème of world literature – Tolstoy, Gorky, Mark Twain, and Shakespeare too – through translations into Bengali. Abridged versions of Crime and Punishment, Mother, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Blue Bird, and Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet were published by Deb Sahitya Kutir — among other Bengali publishers — for young readers. Later in life, as a student of English Literature, I realized that our understanding of the ways and woes of our world would be so much poorer if Iliad and Odyssey had remained confined to Greek readers; if Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House had not crossed the frontiers of Norway; if Don Quixote were to be read only in the Spanish that Miguel Cervantes wrote in; if The Hunchback of Notre Dame was meant only for those raised in French, or if Faust were to be played only to German viewers.
And, talking of viewers: how would the world have known about the Russian Sergei Eisenstein, the Japanese Akira Kurosawa, the Greek Theo Angelopoulos, the Italian Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini, the French Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, the Swedish Ingmar Bergman, the Polish Andrzej Wajda, the Czech Jiri Menzel, the Argentinian Fernando Solanas, the Turkish Yilmaz Guney, the Chinese Zhang Yimou, the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, or our very own Satyajit Ray? Unthinkable, the world of cinema without subtitles in this day and age when Hollywood films come with subtitles in not just English and Hindi – the two official languages of India – but also in its umpteen regional languages to reach viewers in pockets that speak only Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali…
The importance of translation is best exemplified by the Song Offerings. If Rabindranath Tagore had not translated the poems of Gitanjali, Asia would have had to wait longer for its first Nobel Prize. Incidentally the central theme of this work too is devotion – and it is part of UNESCO’s collection of Representative Works. And it is my belief that no other Nobel for literature has come to India because we have not come up with any worthy translation – say, of Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay? At least, not until recent years, nor in a big way.
Also, it is my own experience that only after Me and I — translated from the Bengali original, Aami O Aami by Devottam Sengupta — was published by Hachette India that a major international publishing house got interested in translating Nabendu Ghosh into French.
That brings me to the frequently asked question: “Why are you translating Nabendu Ghosh rather than publishing his Bengali originals?” The answer takes me back to 1940s when Baba’s Phears Lane was translated into Urdu and published in Lahore. Clearly Nabendu Ghosh was a ‘star’ in Bengali literature then. Allow me to quote Soumitra Chatterjee, the thespian who we lost so recently and was a Master in Bengali: “I had known about Nabendu Ghosh even before I took to studying Bengali literature, since Daak Diye Jaai (The Clarion Call) was a sensation even when I was in school. His writing was not confined to urban setting and city life. He went to the villages and wrote about the man of the soil too. His characters were always flesh and blood humans.”
But the Partition of India had halved the market for books and films in Bengali, dimming the prospects of even established directors and writers who sought a new opening on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Thus, when Bimal Roy – a celluloid star after his meteoric debut with Udayer Pathey ( In the Path of Sunrise, 1943) — left for Bombay in 1950 to make a film for Bombay talkies, Nabendu Ghosh joined his unit. However, in Bombay he found that his kind of writing did not have as much of a prospect in films which were made primarily for the entertainment of an amorphous mass. So, he decided to write scripts based on other people’s stories, and his own thought-provoking stories — which he described as ‘fingers pointing at what ails society’ — he continued to write as pure literature, in Bengali, and send to publishers in Kolkata.
This oeuvre bears the distinct stamp of his outlook towards life, society, or state. As a critic wrote, “There is deep empathy for human emotions, layers of meaning that add to the depth of the spoken words, subtle symbolism, description of unbearable life paired with flight in the open sky of imagination.” But this aspect of the writer got buried under the glamour of screen writing, and even in Bengal people thought of him only as the screen writer of successful films. Small wonder, since he wrote more than eighty scripts, for directors like Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Bhattacharya, Vijay Bhatt, Sultan Ahmed, Dulal Guha, Lekh Tandon, Phani Majumdar, Satyen Bose, Shakti Samanta, Sushil Mazumdar, among others. Most of them are considered classics of the Indian screen: Sujata, Bandini, Devdas, Parineeta, Aar Paar, Majhli Didi, Teesri Kasam, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Ganga Ki Saugandh, Khan Dost, Baadbaan, Insaan Jaag Utha, Lal Patthar …
But Baba was saddened that even his colleagues in the filmdom did not know his literary pouring as only a handful were translated into Hindi and none into English. This is what I have tried to rectify through Chuninda Kahaniyaan (2009), Me and I (2017), and That Bird Called Happiness (2017). Mistress of Melodies (2020) you could say is a part of a continuum that started with River of Flesh (2016) and comes after That Bird Called Happiness. Nabendu Ghosh would read up volumes — books, news items, dictionaries and encyclopedia — when he fleshed out his characters. Perhaps that is why they play out their lives before you, like moving images. It was no different when he was writing Song of a Sarangi/ Ekti Sarengir Sur, included in Chaand Dekhechhilo that won him the Bankim Puraskar.
But above all, the reason for putting my energy in this art is to take a part of my heritage to the world. Because, as the celebrated Bengali writer Shirshendu Mukherjee said about Nabendu Ghosh, he is a writer who deserves to be read. Allow me to finish with a quote from him as he talked about his senior’s continuing relevance, to readers of Bengali literature and outside.
“Nabendu Da’s use of language was remarkable. He starts one of his stories with the word ‘Bhabchhi / (I’m) Thinking.’ It is a single word, that is also a complete sentence, and it has been used as a para in itself. One of his stories, Khumuchis, explores the secret language used by pickpockets. Bichitra Ek Prem Gatha (A Wondrous Love) – published to mark 2550th year of the Buddha — uses a vocabulary that is devoid of any word that would not have existed before the advent of Islam.
“He had an amazing sense of the optimum in this matter — he never overdid it. Not many writers of his time were into such experiments. Nabendu Ghosh did. He stood apart from his contemporaries in this respect. A part of his mind always ticked away, thinking of how his characters would speak. This added to the readability of his novels and stories. It quickened the pace of unfolding the narrative. They were all so racy! So fast paced, so real, so full of conflict and its resolution… Exceptional is the only word to describe it.
“And this was because of his language/ vocabulary. He was always pushing the boundaries of the language. His ‘throw’ was such that it turns into an eternal emotion which continues to cast its spell.
The same focused development of a plot shorn of every trivial and expendable branch, razor sharp emotions, whirlwind passion — I feel writing itself was a passion for him. He did not write with his head alone, his heart bled for the human condition.
“And this is why he never dated. His writing is the stuff that makes a story universal, eternal. For today’s readers he is a lesson in how to write — they can master how to write a narrative that flows like a boat down a rapid stream. In terms of language, structure, characters and situation, he is a writer who would be relevant to the young readers of not only Bengal but worldwide.”
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
A translation from Bengali to English by Dipankar Ghosh of Nabendu Ghosh’s Traankarta, a story set during the Partition riots
The bad news reached here too, the news of the rioting. The roads looked tense and empty. Even the pariah dogs that usually roamed the streets had disappeared. Only a few brash teenagers were bunched up in a group at the head of the lane, swaggering around with cigarettes hanging from their lips.
On the other side of the city, fires were raging, severed heads rolling on the blood-bathed streets; teenaged girls had their breasts cut off and little babies had been thrown head down into concrete floors. Tonight they were paying homage to Satan in the stygian darkness, on the other side of the city. The news wafted in the gentle breeze, and the horrifying tales of the day’s events spread through the grapevine to every household.
Gloom descended on everyone. They felt benumbed, paralysed, by a tidal wave of fear. Fear, unspoken fear. Fear that made the heart palpitate madly in the breast. Fear that made you seek the company of a crowd. Awful fear. The kind of fear that deprived one of the will to live.
The ladies proceed silently with their chores. Not too many items on the menu for tonight. Rice and boiled vegetables. The children don’t understand much, occasionally they were bursting out into giggles, running noisily up and down the stairs, squabbling amongst themselves. But, now and then, an older person would burst out like a sentry, “Silent! Or I’ll behead you with a smack!”
But they could think of very little that they could be done to save their own heads from the approaching holocaust. Everyone was discussing behind barred doors, what to do. Not just bad news, but terrible news that the people from the other side intend to attack them tonight. A cold wave of fear ran down their spines when they got the news. What to do, what on earth should they do?
The house of Mr Bose, a barrister who was the local leader, was brightly lit up. Arun was planning to quietly slip out, how long could one possibly stay cooped? But Mr Bose had his searchlight eyes on every possible exit, making it impossible for anyone to either enter or leave his fortress of Lanka without his knowledge.
“Where do you think you are going?” he asked in his deepest voice.
“Just out – for a dekko.”
“Just out! Forget it. Are you not aware of what’s going on in the heart of this city?! Go, get back and stay put in your room.”
Arun returned to his room.
His daughter Ruby came out. There were dark circles of anxiety under her large almond eyes. Her curly black tresses were floating in an unruly fashion, her usually healthy pink glow was replaced by sallow pallor. She was depressed, and fear had put its mark on her. Movies, parties, and picnics were suddenly out of question, the desire to fly around the flowers and taste their honey at will had suddenly flown out of the honey bee. Ruby was lost.
“Will you take us to uncle’s house?”
Meaning Bhawanipore. Meaning a predominantly Hindu area, where perhaps she could put on her crepe silk sari and wander around at will, shaking her long coil of hair.
Mr Bose shook his head in frustration, “Uncle’s house? Now? Impossible! The roads are barren, not a man or a car about, we will have to cross many localities, driving through corpses and rivulets of blood, and more importantly, sudden unprovoked attacks! That important thing called life that we are trying to save, could very easily be ended en route! Stop making silly suggestions, go up to your room and stay there Ruby –”
But how on earth could Ruby sit calmly in her room! She felt frightened out of her mind. Occasionally the sound of shouting was floating in from afar. Awful noises. Last night she had seen the sky flare up in the east. She had heard all the beastly tales. It had all left a fearful imprint on her mind and every now and then, a spark of fear would set off a burst of anxiety in her mind. The nervous pulsating of the vessels under that pink alabaster skin of hers bore witness to her angry, frightened state of mind.
Now, it was one thing browbeating Arun and Ruby, but Mrs Bose? Perpetually conscious and tense about her obese abundance, she was an entirely different proposition. No doubt the dreadful news of the riots would put her in a fairly explosive state of mind — of that Mr Bose was certain. Therefore, when the substantial lady made her appearance Mr Bose felt a bit intimated, fairly aware that if he tried to browbeat her, the result could be counter-productive.
“Listen, I can’t go on like this — this suspense, this danger, it is unbearable.”
“But what — tell me what am I to do dear?” Mr Bose protested weakly.
“Do something, for Heaven’s sake! Don’t just sit still, quietly—”
“I am not sitting still. I am trying to think. Besides, we have two rifles, five hundred rounds of ammunition, we have a sentry, a bearer, a man servant and also a chauffeur, so what are you worried about?”
Mrs Bose collapsed on the sofa, there was a glint of fire in her bluish eyes, sharply she said, “Spare me a list of your rationale, please — your little group would disappear in front of a massive crowd. I’d like to see you stop them with those five hundred rounds. You don’t consider that an unending supply, do you? No, I’m sorry that is not enough to reassure me — I’ll faint any moment under the strain!”
Knock, knock. Somebody at the door.
“Sir,” the sentry’s voice outside the door.
“What is it Tiwari?”
“Some people of the community want to meet you Sir.”
“Offer them seats,” he spoke aloud, then continued to assure Mrs Bose, “Now listen, don’t get overexcited. Let’s wait and watch. We are due to have a meeting of the local defence committee. It is such a large community I am sure they are all willing to fight to protect us all. Don’t be nervous dear. If the situation deteriorates then of course we will have to take a risk — but the car will be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.”
In the margins of the so-called civilised society, at the end well-to-do side of the neighbourhood, separating them from the Others on the opposite side, lived a group of people who considered themselves a part of the same community. They were the untouchable Doms. Living in pigeon hole sized tiny hovels, they just about carried on living. They swept the roads, carried water for folks, washed their drains and lavatories. They collected night soil, got into manholes and extracted rubbish from them, they cleaned refuse bins and manned the garbage carts of the municipality. Their hovels were plastered with mud, and they ate from chromed metal plates of their dirt mixed rice. They sat in the light of little kerosene lamps and got boisterously drunk in the evening. And although they considered themselves to be part of the community, to the more genteel and affluent part of the community they were always a bit of an embarrassment.
These people in the no man’s land between the two communities numbered some two hundred. And the only man who had the absolute obedience of these two hundred odd bods was called Jhagru. Such was his hold over them that, if he chose to call daylight as night his men would do so without batting an eyelid. He was their unopposed and unanimous chief, their sardar.
Jhagru’s men had come to him. They had seen bits of what had happened on the other side, heard most of all the atrocities that had taken place, they had even helped the frightened people who had managed to flee from the fortress-like bounds of the place, and taken them to safety. But the question was, what would they do today? If what they had heard on the grapevine was proven true, then how were they to react?
Having binged on some onion bhajis (fritters) and the potent rice-wine of Tari, Jhagru was feeling content. The capillaries of his eyes were bloodshot, and in the cool evening breeze his large figure deemed ready to take off like a well inflated balloon. He eyed his wife’s, Suratiya’s, generous proportions as he was preparing himself for some decent basic entertainment for the evening, his men all descended on him with the bad news, and spoilt his mood.
“Bugger off !” he said crossly in Hindi. “What will be, will be. So what if they attack?”
Ranglal said, “But surely we must do something -”
“You buggers have ruined my drinking,” Jhagru barked at them.
Waving a hand, he demanded, “What the hell is there to worry about? If they attack, we will fight. What else? The main thing is, be prepared with your weapons, when the gong is rung, jump on them — end of story –”
“No buts, you all run off. Sitting here with my toddy, let me enjoy my drink — you blighters get back to your homes.”
They all left.
Munching his onion bhaji, he sipped from his earthen cup. Slowly but surely the warmth off the stinging spirit made his ears ring, his breathing got heavier, his eyelids drooped, his sight got hazy. Jhagru was drunk. In that state he was pleasantly surprised to notice that Suratiya had turned into an exceptional beauty, like an unattainable princess of a fairy tale.
“Suratiya dear –”
“Come on, over here –”
“Have a bit of tari?”
“NNo – I won’t –”
In his stupor Jhagru was suddenly enraged by this rejection, and got headstrong.
“You coming here or not — you bitch!”
“No I won’t — I’ve enough work still to finish –”
“Then suffer the consequences –”
Jhagru got up. Walking with unsteady gait like a child, he reached Suratiya, caught hold of her and lifted her in his arms.
“You’ll kill me,” Suratiya screeched, “you’ll break every bone in my body!”
Pulling his wife close to him Jhagru guffawed loudly, “You frightened? Don’t be, woman. Go on, sit in my lap.”
Jhagru was drunk like a lord. No way could he hold on to a strong woman like Suratiya in his drunken state, let alone have his way with her. Giggling loudly, Suratiya ran away.
Ten or eleven o’clock in the morning. If it were an ordinary day, Jhagru would be up to his neck in work. But since the rioting was a good excuse not to be at work, why not have some fun.
“Ran away,” Jhagru laughed. “Bloody woman.” Got to do something, he thought to himself. The tari was finished, he was drunk, and Suratiya was gone. So he needed to do something. But what?
Suddenly in a dusty corner he noticed his forgotten dhol (drum). He pulled it out and started to beat it enthusiastically. He would sing. Never mind, if it scared the daylight out of people, Jhagru could not desist. He was in the mood for some singing, and sing he would.
Vigorously beating the drum, Jhagru started to sing widely. Amongst the incoherent lyric the audience could have deciphered only one line, which he kept repeating in a refrain:
Chhappar par kauwa naache, Bug bugoola/ Hanh hanh bug bugoola…
(The crow dances on the rooftop, bug bugoola)
Ya, Ya, bug bugoola —
What wonderful tune! What incredible control of voice! What melody and feeling in rendition! The entire slum of untouchables woke up to fact that Jhagru was drunk and was singing.
Respectfully they whispered, “Sardar is singing, by jove he is singing.”
The Defence committee meeting was on at Mr. Bose’s house. He himself was the chairman.
Almost all the important folks of the locality were gathered there. Venerable teacher Nibaran Mukherji, solicitor Haridas Mitra, Dr. Santosh Dutta (MBE, RCS), and iron merchant Sukumar Roy. There were also the young representatives of the Saraswati Orchestra Group, Youth Body-Culture Samiti, and the Evergreen Dramatic Club. A large blanket had been laid on the floor of Mr Bose’s inner courtyard. Seated on it, all the members were earnestly discussing the situation.
In a room across the corner Ruby had drawn the curtain aside to watch the proceedings. Sheer curiosity. Unable to get out of the house, the lack of parties, movies and picnics was getting unbearable. The meeting was an interesting diversion. If nothing else, she would see a wide spectrum of people. Ruby did not watch them passively, she tried to instinctively assess them. It pleased her to do so.
Mr Bose started in a deep, appropriately grave presidential voice. “You are all aware of the reprehensible events that have started in our city yesterday. Some of you may have witnessed the carnage. This is not the time, and I’m not the person, for long drawn speeches. Suffice it to say that we, especially us Bengalis, are witnessing the beginning of an evil period. Today we must bind together against this medieval barbarism. We have to fight it and stop it — meaning, we have to stop this aberration. We must forget the differences of our castes, our classes, high or low, who is untouchable and who isn’t– remembering only one thing– that we are Hindus and nothing else.”
Mr Bose stopped for a moment, took a hanky out of his pocket, wiped the tension-induced sweat off his forehead. Opening his cigarette case, he offered the expensive ‘Black and White’ cigarette to the assembled elders and lit one for himself. There was a murmur of appreciation in the gathering for his opening speech, Ruby was flushed with pride.
The iron merchant said, “Absolutely, there’s great merit in what you have just said. The time for squabbling about class, caste et cetera is gone — from now on we are all equal, we are all Hindus.”
Mr Bose said, “Now let us determine how we should go about it.”
“Right, right,” they said in unison, and leaned forward.
The venerable teacher said, “Let’s divide the neighbourhood into four parts, each one keeping guard in their side of the four directions.”
The solicitor said, “Let’s use a siren or conch shells to signal danger to others.”
The doctor said, “A group of youths should stand guard, by rota, and blow on a conch three times at the first sign of danger. The siren should go off then. There should be red beacons in the last row of houses in the four main directions, and if danger approaches, the beacons should be lit up to let the others know which direction the danger is approaching from.”
The industrialist said, “The women, children, and the elderly should remain in the top floor or in the terrace armed with bricks and stones. The men should stay on the ground floor, armed with sticks and other weapons.”
All the suggestions were passed. The defence committee meeting was progressing nicely, but suddenly, a young lad called Jatin, created a problem. He wore clothes of hand woven khadi, which meant he was a nationalist, he had short cropped hair, and he was rough-spoken.
He said, “You have arranged everything. But if they really do attack us, then who is going to engage in a hand to hand fight?”
It seemed like a bomb had been set off. Everything felt hazy and nebulous like smoke. Not for a moment had they considered this! Really worth thinking.
The industrialists said, “Why, won’t we all fight them? Let all of us get to grips with them.”
The teacher shook his head in dissension, “That does not sound reasonable. It would mean that a group of people would always have to be outside to fight the enemy. In other words, they would have to be prepared to sacrifice their lives. Can all the able-bodied men do that, or be willing to do that?”
Another explosion. Really, who should fight on ground, if there were a fight? If their worst fears materialised and thousands of people attacked them suddenly, then would people in individual houses, like disparate little islands, battling the enemy with bricks and sticks be able to save themselves?
Jatin said, “So, in spite of our well-organised meeting, and all our arrangements, we will not be able to save ourselves. So consider what ought to be done–”
Mr Bose was an intelligent man, having passed his bar at Law in the distant land across the seas had sharpened his instincts even more. He realised that since Jatin had raised this insoluble problem, it was fairly certain that he had pondered on the answer to it. And truly it was a serious point. He said, “I really have no solution to the problem Jatin has set before us, so I must request Jatin himself to show us a way out of this dilemma.”
Jatin smiled. “Fine,” he said, “I will resolve the problem. Have you any idea knowledge of the poor people who live between ‘Them’ and ‘Us’?”
“Yes. They don’t belong to the other community, they consider themselves part of us Hindus. And, although they cannot enter the Shiva temple at the other end of our colony, they worship the idol in that temple. Meaning, they are Hindus –”
Mr Bose smiled appreciatively at him, “The idea.”
Jatin continued, “They might earn little and eat less but they are hardy and strong. The instinct that we have lost, which is presently making us timid despite our numbers, is fully active in them. So if you really want to perform as a defence committee, and live on, then you better bring them into this meeting. And raise a fund-immediately!”
The mention of money made the industrialist take note, “Fund for what?”
“It is best to give some salted yeast to the cow when it’s in milk,”Jatin smiled.
“Meaning what? Cough a bit freely, son –” the industrialist said, testily.
“The meaning is self-evident. We must give them weapons, good food, and a decent flow of liquor.”
“That is true. Those who are going to put their lives on line must be well tended,“ Mr Bose agreed with Jatin.
“Don’t waste time in thinking,” Jatin stressed. “Atrocity has to be stoutly countered with ferocity, so we must be prepared. And let there be no doubt in your minds that they will attack us tonight.”
There was a rustle of notes and coins changing hands. Then and there a collection of fifty rupees was raised, more funds would be forthcoming later. Who could object to a bit of wise investment when one’s life was at stake? Nothing is quite as deep as one’s life — so let the blighters have good food and potent country liquor. Not a lot to pay for the bargain. They might attack this very night. If the cruel pack of animals descend in the dark of the night, then these men will pour out their life blood for our protection. Wasn’t this the least one could do for them? Surely they would serve them. It would be a good deed. Not just the joy of being alive but also the gratification of doing a good deed, by giving the money. So let them eat, let them get drunk.
Jhagru suddenly tired of the drum and put it down. He kicked it to a corner, swearing, “Hell, I think I’m sober –”
No work today. How long can a person enjoy staying within the house? It would be fine if there was toddy around. That was gone. A bit of monkey business with Suratiya might have been fun, but she, wretched girl, had scampered. Maybe she really had work to do. Even bonking wasn’t much fun any more, but what he did enjoy was good liquor. This approaching sobriety, clearness of vision, reality creeping into the drowsy stupor of alcoholic haze was most disagreeable to Jhagru. What was termed as normal life was totally abnormal as far as Jhagru was concerned. To him normalcy was epitomised by gallons of drinks followed by drunken fisticuffs, singing and dancing bare-assed, puking the guts out and lying down inebriated.
This was rotten. Must get some more toddy. Must get back into the mood.
“Suratiya –O Suratiya–”
“What do you want?”
“Give us a couple of annas, dear.”
“Don’t have any.”
Jhagru jumped up and roared, “You going to give me the money without hassle, Suratiya?”
Suratiya answered back in the same pitch, “No hassle, no tassle — simple fact, I don’t have the money.”
Suddenly, Jhagru lunged at Suratiya — pulling her by her short pigtail he thumped a few hefty blows on her back, “You ungrateful slut–”
“Oh my Ma — he’s killing me!” Suratiya wailed out loud. There was no need for the wailing, but Suratiya had talent for dramatic exaggeration.
“Are you gonna gimme the money or not, you wretched witch?”
The people of the hovels took note, and respectfully whispered amongst themselves, “Sardar is giving his wife a thrashing, a good hiding.”
It was at that moment they heard two or three voices call out, “Jhagru? Is Jhagru in?”
The voices were barely audible above Suratiya’s caterwauling. Again the voices were heard, this time a notch higher, “Jhagru? Jhagru sardar— are you in? Jhagru–”
Suratiya stopped her yowling, looked out and said, “Some people looking for you –”
“Yes, some gentlemen.”
Caught unawares, Jhagru tried to collect his thoughts as he came out to meet the three ‘gentlemen’. Jatin was one of them.
“Are you Jhagru?”
“You have been sent for.”
“Who has sent for me?” Jhagru was a bit puzzled.
“Bose Saheb, the barrister– don’t you know of him?”
Jhagru’s pupils dilated anxiously, shaking his head vigorously he said, “Sure I know him sir, of course, yes.”
“He has sent for you — now–”
“Me? Oh my lord, what would he want with Jhagru Dom?”
“He needs you. Won’t you come?”
“Yes, yes, certainly I will come, sir. Barrister Saheb has sent for me, goodness–”
“Salaam squire, salaam babus–”
Jhagru stood in front of the defence committee. He was still rather drunk, he swayed a bit on his feet as he waited. They all gazed at him. There was a fine sheen of sweat on his hairline pate, and the pupils of his small eyes flickered a bit anxiously. He was wearing a dirty torn loincloth and a thick loose shirt, an angry boil on his left cheek. That was Jhagru.
Ruby stood close behind the curtain. Her nose in the air, she muttered to herself, “How ugly and dirty!”
All the inspecting keen eyes seemed to pierce Jhagru like needles.
He smiled a bit uncomfortably, blurting out, “Forgive me sirs, I am a bit drunk on rice wine–”
Mr Bose leaned forward to ask, “So you are Jhagru?”
“Yes sir, Jhagru Dom.”
“And you are drunk?”
“You enjoy your booze?”
Hanging his head, Jhagru said, amused, “Certainly do sir.”
A bit more forcefully, Mr Bose asked, “Are you the leader of the Doms?”
“Well then, listen Jhagru. We will let you, and your comrades, have as much drink as you want. And not just drinks, we will give money for food too.”
Jhagru wondered if he was dreaming. He looked all round, somewhat warily. No, everything looks quite real. He wondered if he was he awfully drunk. Never, he had barely wet his snout. It wasn’t false, it was all true, real.
“You are very kind sir, but –”
Mr Bose interrupted, “I’ll tell you. You have heard about the disturbances, haven’t you Jhagru?”
Jhagru nodded, yes.
“Tonight they might attack us here.”
“We are Hindus, and you all are also Hindus.”
“If Hindus don’t save Hindus then who will save them?”
“Certainly sir, absolutely right.”
“If they attack us, you will all fight? We — we shall certainly join you, we will fight together.”
Suddenly, Mr Bose noticed that amidst the seated gathering Jhagru was the only one standing up. In an excited voice he said, “What’s this Jhagru, why are you still without a seat? Come take a seat, sit.”
Jhagru’s was stunned. The sudden, unexpected cordiality overwhelmed him, he uneasily said, “But –”
“No buts, no formalities, don’t be shy, take a seat.”
“I am an untouchable Dom, sir.”
“Dom?” Mr.Bose lifted his eyes to heaven, his voice quivering with feeling he said, “Dom so what? Untouchable?! You are a human being just like us. A Hindu just like us. Sit down, brother.”
Suddenly, to emphasise that he meant what he had uttered, Mr.Bose walked up to Jhagru, took the astounded man’s arm and sat him down on a chair.
Jhagru tried to say something but his chocked vocal cords would not cooperate. The man who could talk nonstop even when he was completely inebriated, was struck dumb through a combination of amazement, gratefulness, and a feeling of unprecedented happiness.
The soft crackling of notes being counted could be heard.
Moments later Jhagru came out of the house.
On his way back home, as he passed by the temple of Lord Shiva, Jhagru stopped short. He went up to the temple, moved his calloused hands over its mossy wall, and chuckled, “Lord Shiva, you are so kind, so good.”
All at once an air of festivity engulfed them all in the slums. Ramprasad Singh’s distillery of illicit liquor was drained within the hour. Banwari’s Confectionery shop had empty shelves, so had Tiwari’s eatery.
Occasionally the sound of a clash in the distance would float in. The battle-crazed sound of destruction, “Allah-Ho-Akbar!” It sounded like the sea from a distance, like waves the sound overpowered the senses.
Every now and then, a dog or two would respond to the danger of the distant noise. In the deepening silence of the dark night, the leader of the slum-dwelling Doms sat awake and alert. His eyes pierced the unknown before him, his ears pricked, attuned to every sound and echo.
At about one o’clock in the morning They declared war.
Jhagru started to beat his drums. Doom-doom-doom-doom. Every slum-dweller was awake. Without a word, they all ran out to the meeting point.
They came playing a band, with torch flares alight. A feeling of hellish surreality descended with them. Like a mass of primitive malevolent spirits, some blood-thirsty phantoms seemed to have taken possession of their dark souls.
The main assault was aimed at the Shiva temple, the purpose being its destruction and after that, the colony beyond.
The entire neighbourhood was overcome with fear. Sirens were blaring, the blood-red lights at the top of the buildings sent out a morse flicker of fright, children could be heard crying as windows banged and doors rapidly closed. The sound of fleeing feet was challenged by the conches.
The whole colony in fear roared, “Vande Mataram* –”The battle cry that was used to liberate the country from foreign rule was the very one they now used to strike at their own countrymen.
Jhagru had stopped beating his drum by then. Quietly they waited.
“Make no noise brothers– let them get close–” Jhagru directed them.
Suddenly they descended like floodwater. In the bright light of the torches their knives and swords gleamed wickedly.
Jhagru was swaying to the beat of the band music, now he shouted, “Go strike now brothers– let’s clear this rubbish–”
The slum-dwellers let out a roar.
The Shiva temple whose walls had never granted them entry, the deity whose blessings they sought merely by touching its moss-covered walls, whom they prayed to and sought solace by beating their head in despair, the unresponsive stony God who never objected to the poverty and deprivation of His people, in His name, Jhagru joined the battle today.
“Har har Mahadev– Jai Shivji ki jai—” Glory to the God of Gods–victory to Lord Shiva.
Then, it seemed as if two mountains had clashed. Not soft mud-hills of earth but two primordial masses of rocks.
Blood flowed in streams. Arms, legs, and decapitated heads fell and floundered on the soil. Shattered skulls poured out their contents like an outpouring of ghee. The sharpened knives pierced a chest or belly and emerged victorious, dripping blood.
Overhead, in the dark blue of the eternal sky the stars flickered weakly. Scraps of cloud floated noiselessly. Somewhere in the sooty night surely flowers were opening their petals, some child was peacefully sleeping, a lover was holding his beloved to his chest motionlessly. Somewhere, surely people were dreaming, someone was singing, making love. And yet…
The rioting stopped. They accepted defeat and retreated. Jhagru’s band had cooled their ardour for battle. The Shiv temple stands untouched.
But many had lost their lives. On both sides. On this side, only the Doms. All the genteel folks were watching the rear end of the battlefield, but the battle did not extend that far. If it had done, of course they would have pitched in, sacrificed their lives.
In the deserted battlefield only the corpses remained. The stench of spilt blood and decomposing bodies was stifling the breeze.
Outside Mr Bose’s house the car stood with its engine idling in the semi-dark of early dawn. Next to it stood an army truck, with four armed soldiers.
“Are you all ready, Ruby?” Mr Bose urgently called out. “Hurry up, the military escort will not hang about much longer.”
Ruby nodded in assent, “Yes, we are ready, let’s go. You know Daddy, Maa is still in a shock.” They all came out.
“Quite natural,” Mr Bose said, “Do you think I am my own self? The good Lord saved us so we are alive to talk about it. Now hurry up.”
Mr Bose got into the car. It sped off. They were going to the safety of Bhowanipur.
Arun said, “Jhagru was our saviour, dad! The man put up some fight.”
Mr Bose lit up a cigarette, until now he did not have the state of mind to do so. Letting off a mouthful of smoke, he said, “Hunh — it was their kind of work. Do you think you all could have done that? Certainly not. Anyway, we did not fail to compensate with money, he was well paid.”
Ruby heaved a sigh of relief, what a close call. Thankfully picnics, parties, and movies would not go out of her life, the butterfly had not come to the end of her days.
The car disappeared into the distance.
In the slums of the untouchable community, the women mourned their dead.
Numerous women had lost their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons. Their cries of mourning rose like a flame into the morning sky.
Suratiya wept. Jhagru was dead.
Yes, Jhagru is dead, but then people like him are born to die so that may save the Mr Bose of this world. Without five sacrificial deaths in the highly combustible lac house of Jatugriha, the five Pandav princes of Mahabharat could not have been saved.
*Vande Mataram — A song by Bankim Chandra written for his novel Ananda Math in the nineteenth century and used during the Indian independence movement widely.
(Published with permission of the translator’s and writer’s families.)
Nabendu Ghosh‘s (1917-2007) oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories. He was a renowned scriptwriter and director. He penned cinematic classics such as Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta, Majhli Didi and Abhimaan. And, as part of a team of iconic film directors and actors, he was instrumental in shaping an entire age of Indian cinema. He was the recipient of numerous literary and film awards, including the Bankim Puraskar, the Bibhuti Bhushan Sahitya Arghya, the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and the National Film Award for Best First Film of a Director.
Dipankar Ghosh (1944-2020) qualified as a physician from Kolkata in 1969 and worked as a surgical specialist after he emigrated to the UK in 1971. But perhaps being the son of Nabendu Ghosh, he had always nursed his literary side and, post retirement, he took to pursuing his interest in translation.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
Exploring the writings of Nabendu Ghosh, his daughter Ratnottama Sengupta shares his life and times and her own journey as a senior journalist, writer and, more recently, a filmmaker.
Mistress of Melodies is a new book, a translation of Nabendu Ghosh’s stories. Ghosh was an eminent Bengali writer and also a major screenwriter from Bollywood, the award-winning director of the iconic Trishagni (The Sandstorm, 1988). This collection edited by his daughter, a senior journalist, translator and writer, Ratnottama Sengupta, brings out the plight of women ranging from the glamorous Gauhar Jaan to the hapless prostitutes and widows — like Fatima who almost gets pushed into the flesh trade for feeding her hungry child. The story on Gauhar Jaan was written originally in English by Nabendu himself. The man did an excellent job in English too though he wrote in Bengali and Hindi mostly. His writing has cinematic clarity.
In 2018, another collection of his short stories That Bird called Happiness was brought out by Sengupta, who with multiple books under her belt, retired as the arts editor of The Times of India and now she is helping the world uncover the richness of the literary lore of Nabendu Ghosh. In this exclusive, she tells us more.
You are the daughter of a very loved writer, screen writer and filmmaker from Bengal, Nabendu Ghosh, along with being an award-winning journalist and film maker. How much did your father influence your choice of career? What impact did his work have on your childhood?
My father did not at all influence my choice of career as a journalist. As a matter of fact, he believed that journalism was literature in hurry. He was happy that his daughter’s name – byline — was appearing every week, often more than once a week, and across India with enviable regularity. But he would often remind me that, in pursuit of this “short-lived glory”, I was neglecting my potentials as a ‘literary writer’ which, he felt, I had in me…
But let me tell you: I would not be what I am today – an editor, translator, curator and director in addition to being a journalist – if I were not born with Nabendu and Kanaklata as my father and mother. Here’s the Why of this statement.
I must have been five or less when I developed the habit of looking attentively at visual images even before I could discern the alphabets. For, even as a baby I would leaf through the books that were everywhere in our house – in the bookshelves, on the tables, on the beds and even under them. Indeed, every night we would remove the books to make our beds and every morning we would put them back there!
Having always been with books, reading stories and images came most naturally to me. And then, there was the dinner table at 2 Pushpa Colony, my home in Mumbai, which was the camp address for not only my cousins and unrelated uncles from Patna and Malda (the two places my parents came from) who were making a career in films, but also that for writers from Bengal and Bihar: Nirendranath Chakraborty, Santosh Ghosh, Samaresh Bose, Phaniswar Nath Renu, Debabrata Mukherjee…
The result? I grew up listening to discussions on literature and cinema – every aspect of it, from cinematography and editing to music and dance. Through them all, I came to appreciate not only the aesthetic aspects of these art forms but also their technical, economic and other social aspects. Through it all, unknown to me, I had become a film and art critic.
Your father moved from Bengal to Patna at the start of his life. Why? Did it impact his choice of career?
My grandfather Nabadwip Chandra Ghosh, a well-known Kirtan singer, was a much-respected advocate who moved from Dhaka to Patna, then a part of the Bengal Presidency, in 1920. Nabendu was then all of four. But every Durga Puja would find them back in Kalatiya village where he started by playing ‘sakhi’ (a woman’s role) and experiencing the rasa of devotion. In his school days itself Nabendu took to writing and soon was part of the editorial team bringing out a handwritten magazine which was popular in the Bengali society of Patna. From his early years he used to save from his tiffin money to watch movies. He was keen about dance and drama and in his college days he regularly performed – even in towns and cities outside Patna. All in all, he was trained in the Arts from his childhood.
And by 1942 he was already a published author. But what determined his ‘career’ as a writer was the Quit India call given by Gandhiji. It led to an incident that changed his life. A large crowd to assemble at the Government offices including that of the IG Police where Nabendu was then a junior. After witnessing the bloodshed unleashed by the British Police, he started writing a novel that labeled him into being identified as a ‘subversive’ writer. Realising that he would not get a respectable job under the imperialist government, he resigned from that job and again, from Military Accounts – and took to writing as a full time occupation and moved to Calcutta.
Why did Nabendu go to Bombay when he was such a successful and loved writer in Bengal?
We are all social creatures, and we do not realise how much our lives are tossed and turned by political events. Take the Partition of India: It bifurcated the state of Bengal, dividing the reader of books and the viewership of films. By 1947, Bengal was the most established film producing centre in India, and as a young, popular and respected writer endowed with a cinematic vision, Nabendu Ghosh was already writing screenplays for a Hollywood-returned director, among others. But both, the publishing sector and Bengali film industry suffered a humongous setback after Partition – especially as the newly formed Pakistan government decided to enforce Urdu as its lingua franca.
So, when faced with tremendous financial hardship, many successful directors moved to Bombay. Legendary director Bimal Roy too was invited by actor Ashok Kumar to make a film for Bombay Talkies, and he invited Nabendu to join the team as a screenwriter. The rest is a historic change of geography: the Bengali writer moved to the shores of the Arabian Sea but did not cease to serve the ‘Bay of Bengal’, as Sunil Gangopadhyay said in reviewing Eka Naukar Jatri ( Journey of a Lonesome Boat, Nabendu’s autobiography).
Here, allow me to quote what poet Nirendranath Chakraborty said at the launch of the autobiography: “It was not with any joy that Nabendu Da left for Bombay at the close of 1940s. The times were such that it was difficult for most of us to eke a decent living. He had a family to look after, the family was growing, opportunities were not. If anything, they were getting curbed. Nabendu Da fulfilled all his responsibilities, including to his family, his friends, and to his first love – literature.”
Recently his telling of Gauhar Jaan has been published in Mistress of Melodies, with some of his translated stories. But Gauhar Jaan was written by him in English — and very well written I must say. Why did he write it in English?
Nabendu was always a keen writer, and politically aware. He wanted to major in History but was advised to take up English. So, he did his MA in English – under British teachers. Naturally he had a firm grounding in the language.
In Bombay of 1950s, directors, actors, producers from different corners had converged. And so, although the discussions in Bimal Roy Productions were held in Bengali and Hindi, he wrote the scripts in English and the basic dialogue, though in Hindi, too was penned in Roman alphabet. So English was always his second language.
Besides, Nabendu had written Swar ki Rani or ‘Mistress of Melodies’ as the first draft for a fuller screenplay that he always planned to write – in all probability, for my brother Subhankar Ghosh who is a graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), directed the successful serial Yugantar (Over the ages) for Doordarshan and Woh Chhokri (That Girl) that won several National Awards.
Why did he not make a film out of Gauhar Jaan? It is an excellent story. Any plans to film it now?
Life is a hard task master. Subhankar too has had to go through several twists and turns. He was in Fiji for some years to teach filmmaking at the Fiji National University. That did not give him the scope to direct the film when Baba penned the first draft. If any opportunity comes along, I am sure that ‘Mistress of Melodies’ will be seen on the silver screen – or streamed on an OTT platform.
Nabendu was into script writing in a big way, especially for Bimal Roy. Can you tell us how they started working together?
After Nabendu moved base to Kolkata, Jahar Roy – the celebrated comedian of the Bengali screen who was like a younger brother to Nabendu since their Patna days – introduced him to Bimal Roy who had shot into national limelight with his very first film, Udayer Pathey (In the Path of Sunrise, 1943). The director, an avid reader, had read most of Nabendu’s writings and had observed that his writing had the “visual quality of a screenplay.” In particular he was highly impressed with the allegorical novel Ajab Nagarer Kahini (Tales of a Curious Land). But at that point B N Sircar of New Theatres was travelling abroad, so the project did not take off.
Meanwhile Mrinal Sen, then only a young associate of my father from Indian People’s Theatre Association, was eager to film it. He came up with a producer who unfortunately ran out of money within a few months and abandoned the project. Nabendu went back to Bimal Roy but he had firmed up his plans to shift to Bombay. All of a sudden, over a cup of tea, he asked Nabendu to join his creative team – and the writer was only too happy to get a new opening in the dismal post-Partition world.
Trishagni was an award-winning film by your father. Tell us how it came about and what made him pick the story?
In 1966 after Bimal Roy passed away, my father had started teaching the Direction students at Film and Television Institute of India as a regular Guest Lecturer. Soon the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) was reborn as National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) – and he became one of the revered members of its Script Committee. To create a bank of screenplays NFDC held a script competition and Nabendu won an award. It was not a cash award: NFDC supported the making of the film by way of equipment, editing, lab cost etc. That script became the award-winning Trishagni, based on a story by Saradindu Bandopadhyay, the Bengali litterateur best known as the creator of Byomkesh Bakshi.
Why this particular story? Being a writer himself, Nabendu would always go to literature for the subject of a film. He maintained that a writer puts in a lot of thought in rooting the character, into creating drama, in layering it with social concern. This gives a sturdiness to the visuals and adds to the fabric of the film which, in tinsel town, otherwise tend to become wishy-washy, and short-lived in their stimulation value. So even for Bimal Roy films he would suggest stories by writers like Subodh Ghosh, Narendranath Mitra, Samaresh Bose. These writers he not only read and respected, he would regularly meet them and often discuss the characters while scripting their stories.
Besides, being from Patna, he was fascinated by Gautama the Buddha whose statues in the museums generated “an inner feeling of content and peace”, he once told me. A prince who renounced every comfort, every pleasure in life in search of a truth, a ‘Bodh’ that would help mankind attain peace in his lifetime: this unique vision drew him to the teachings of Buddha. Then, in Maru O Sangha (The Desert and the Convent) he came across the Agni Upadesh, the sermon that outlined that the world is burning with desire, and our mission in life should be to free ourselves from desires that consume life. Only then we can attain a life of tranquility, endless bliss.
His reverence had inspired Baba to write a novel, Bichitra Ek Prem Gatha (A Wondrous Love, 2007) to mark Buddha’s 2550th year. It derived from the Buddhist text ‘Theri Gatha’ to juxtapose the worldly desires and longings with the exemplary discipline and distilled love of Pippali and Kapilani, two newly-weds who were drawn towards the Sakya Muni and took refuge in him. Eventually Pippali turned into Mahakashyap, a ‘lieutenant’ of the Buddha, and Kapilani headed the ranks of nuns – probably the first convent in the world! This turned out to be Baba’s last published novel (while he lived).
While on his Buddha Trail, let me add that Nabendu had earlier been part of Gotama the Buddha (1956), the Bimal Roy Productions documentary that had won director Rajbans Khanna an Honorable Mention at Cannes.
What was the last film he made? And what was the last book he wrote?
The last film he was to make – on NFDC funding – was Motilal Padre, based on a novel by Kamal Kumar Majumdar. Unfortunately, this remained an unfulfilled dream. So, effectively, he directed three films: Trishagni (1989), Netraheen Sakshi (Blind Witness, 1992) for the Children’s Film Society of India, about a visually challenged boy who could identify a killer by his voice, and Ladkiyaan (Daughters, 1997) for the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
This again was part of a scheme that saw the Ministry finance films pertaining to a Girl Child’s education (Kairee by Amol Palekar), childbearing and women’s health in a Muslim family (Hari Bhari by Shyam Benegal), and so on. Ladkiyaan was based on a real-life incident that saw three sisters in Kanpur jointly commit suicide when one night, they heard the father threatening their mother, who had conceived again: “No more girls! I want only a boy.”
His last completed novel is Kadam Kadam (The Long March), which chronicles the story of a young Indian who joins the British Army, is sent to Singapore, taken POW by the Japanese, joins INA and is transformed. He had just completed it when he had to be hospitalized. I published it at the onset of his birth centenary.
He wrote a book for his grandchildren too. Would you like to tell us about it?
Yes, he wrote Aami ar Aami, translated to Me and I, for his two grandsons, Devottam Sengupta and Devraj Nicholas Ghosh. The racy story about a parallel universe fuses human curiosity about outer space, the stars and galaxies, with a futuristic vision emanating from his faith in humans and a ‘Hindu’ vision of the cosmos…
The germ of the story came from Sudheesh Ghatak, the second brother of celebrated director Ritwik Ghatak, whom I remember from my childhood as a fascinating storyteller and a storehouse of knowledge on the developments in science as well as on the ‘Unbelievable’. One day he had talked about the hypothesis of a group of scientists about twin planets in the cosmos. A few weeks later Nabendu, on a visit to Kolkata, was leafing through old books sold on the pavements of College Street, and came across one that referred to twin planets. That spurred his curiosity, and imagination…
My son, Devottam, started translating the book as part of my effort to improve his Bengali. He believes that somewhere the idea grew in my father from watching his two grandsons. When they were kids Dev and Nick — who now lives in UK — were mistaken for twins. At one time my brother was posted in Germany, and his friends would remark how the cousins resembled each other yet were “somewhat different”. This could have fanned his thoughts about the protagonist and his interstellar twin who were ‘identical yet opposite’. In Me and I, Mukul (which, incidentally, was my father’s pet name) and Lukum “mirror, in a modified way, our experiences of growing up as two brothers separated by what in 1980s was several thousand miles of culture – experiences, of what we were exposed to and how we were brought up in our thinking,” Devottam wrote in his translator’s note.
What do you feel when you translate Nabendu’s work?
You have taken the words out of my mouth. Actually, translating Nabendu Ghosh has been a BIG lesson in creative writing. His stories are rooted in the soil, yet not homilies on traditional lives. They are about the lives impacted by social and political twists that tossed people not only across the Radcliffe Line but from Bengal to Bombay, Madras (now Chennai) to the Himalayas, from villages to the industrialising cities, the lost world of Lucknow’s nawabs to the Bengal heightened by World War II, to the dreamland of Bollywood and the upper crust families homed in Park Street.
Layering a character with socio-political reality makes them both universal and timeless, I learnt as I tried to translate these stories. There’s always a tomorrow to live for, I learnt from them. The more direct your sentence is, the more crisply is the emotion conveyed, I learnt from his sentences. The shorter the sentence is, the more it compels you to walk ahead with the characters into their lives. And, of course, from his use of language I learnt that every word we utter is a reflection of my time, my mood, my upbringing. As Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay said, Nabendu Ghosh is a writer who should be read by every aspiring writer for his grasp over the art of storytelling.
Tell us what was the perception about his writing and its impact on his peers and writers who came after him?
When Nabendu entered the frame, the towering personality of Rabindranath Tagore was no longer on the scene. There were the three Bandopadhyays – Tarashankar, Manik and Bibhuti Bhushan. The three ‘N’s – Narayan Gangopadhyay, Narendranath Mitra and Nabendu Ghosh joined them at this juncture, each with a definite voice and constituency.
On his 90th birthday, litterateur-journalist Dibyendu Palit wrote: “Nabendu Ghosh is among those frontrunners of the post-Kallol era Bengali literature who amazed with the power of their pen. His subjects were rooted in realism, his language was seeking new expressions in aesthetics. His Ajab Nagarer Kahini, Phears Lane, Daak Diye Jaai are memorable creations in the language…”
Sunil Gangopadhyay summed for the Indian PEN Society, what he wrote in reviewing Eka Naukar Jatri: “Your devotion to Bengali literature and your creativity in the language is a matter of great joy for us.”
Last year Shirshendu Mukherjee, speaking at a celebration of Nabendu’s birth anniversary at Starmark said, “Nabendu Ghosh was a ‘star’ among those writing in1940-1950s. He lived a long life — he passed away when he was nearing 91 — and almost until he went away, he was writing. My attraction for his work was formed when I was a teenager reading world literature. There were two names I admired very much Norwegian Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun (1859-1952); and Austrian Stefen Zweig (1881-1942), the most popular novelist of his time. Anyone who read him can’t forget his style of writing. In my view, Nabendu Ghosh shared his trait of riveting storytelling with Zweig. The same focused development of a plot shorn of every trivial and expendable branch, razor sharp emotions, whirlwind passion — I feel writing itself was a passion for him. He did not write with his head alone, his heart bled for the human condition. This I can say without exhausting the considerable list of his writings — 28 novels, 18 anthologies of short stories.”
Shirshendu also talked about Nabendu’s remarkable use of language. “One of his stories starts with a word, “Bhabchhi — (I’m) Thinking.” It is a single word that is also a complete sentence, and it has been used as a paragraph in itself. Not many writers of his time were into such experiments. Even some doyens of Bengali literature did not accept to set out on this adventure. Nabendu Ghosh did. He stood apart from his contemporaries in this respect. A part of his mind always ticked away, thinking of how his characters would speak. This has to be done – this tinkering with structure, altering of syntax, or adding to the vocabulary. Words from so many languages — Arabic and Persian and English – have filtered in and become a part of the Mother Language as we speak it today.
“Nabendu was always pushing the boundaries of the language – but he had an amazing sense of the optimum in this matter: he never overdid it. One of his stories, Khumuchis, explores the secret language used by pickpockets. Bichitra Ek Prem Gatha (A Wondrous Love) – published to mark 2550th year of Buddha — uses language that is closer to Prakrit, in that it is devoid of any word that would not have existed before the advent of Islam. He always put a lot of thought into how the characters would speak. This added to the readability of his stories and quickened the pace of the narrative. They were all so racy!
“And this is why he never dated. His writing is the stuff that makes a story universal, eternal. For today’s readers he is a lesson in how to write — they can master how to write a narrative that flows like a boat down a rapid stream. In terms of language, structure, characters and situation, he is a writer who would be relevant to the young readers of not only Bengali but worldwide.”
Speaking at the launch of Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh (Chosen Stories of Nabendu Ghosh, stories translated to Hindi) the recently demised thespian Soumitra Chatterjee, a Master in Bengali Literature, had said: “Even before I took to studying Bengali literature, even when I was in school, Daak Diye Jai (The Call) was a sensation. His writing was not confined to urban settings and city life, he wrote of the man of the soil too. His characters were always flesh and blood humans too.”
And when his last birthday was being publicly celebrated at the Palladian Lounge in Kolkata, an MA student of Rabindra Bharati University, Saswati Saha had said, “This bright star of contemporary Bengali literature has riveted me with the quiet aesthetics and deep realizations that are germane to his novels. I am a young reader of his art but both Bichitra Ek Prem Gatha and Jibaner Swad (The Taste of Life), both published in 2007, have increased my appetite for his writings. With the alluring simplicity of his language and unhurried descriptions he unfolds harsh realities. Had I not read Nabendu Ghosh, I would have remained ignorant of a large tract of life experience.”
You yourself have made a directorial debut on the life and works of your father. Did that help you understand him better? How did the film do?
And They Made Classics… was made to celebrate his Birth Centenary in 2007 but the interview it came out of was recorded by Joy Bimal Roy and Aparajita Sinha – son and daughter of Bimal Roy when they set out to make Remembering Bimal Roy in his 100th year. ATMC… spoke primarily about the classics of Nabendu scripted for the legendary director. It is a lesson in film appreciation and also in a certain way, about the art of making films in a given social circumstance – in the face of all odds. It seasoned me as a film analyst, really.
Of course, what has given me a greater insight into his life and times is Eka Naukar Jatri, the autobiography that was first serialized by Dibyendu Palit as the editor of Sangbad Pratidin (News Everyday) then fleshed out by the writer for Dey’s Publication. Now, while translating it for Speaking Tiger, it lifts the curtain on how he became a litterateur, virtually chronicling 1940s, the founding decade of our nation. This was a decade that was ushering the future in tumultuous colours and fiery alphabets. Just think of the march of the dead this decade saw: people dying on the streets of Calcutta while the British government was sending away rice to the theatre of war in the North East; people dying in poisonous chemical vapour unleashed through Europe; lives lost in Japan when a new atomic toy was dropped from the air – and later, repeatedly in the Pacific Islands, when millions suddenly were tossed into an identity crisis and an ensuing bloodbath by the Radcliffe Line…
I now understand that he was constantly bothered by questions such as “Is this the new era, the age of Deliverance to be ushered by the mythical avatar, Kalki? Or will this flow of blood and the wails of mothers be lost in the dust? Will the world be green again?” I now understand why the Lifetime Achievement Award citation of Bengal’s literary council, Bangiya Sahitya Parishad reads: “Time and again the strange ironies and mysteries of history have lit up your questioning mind. At the centre of history is Man. History is the conveyor belt that leads Man from past to present, sometimes with affection, mostly through rough and tumble. History never stands still through conflicting turns of events it makes way ahead. You made history stand still in your pages…”
You have written a number of books and translated extensively. What is the difference between your father’s writing and yours? Of course, you are an eminent journalist, and he was a creative writer. He wrote in Bengali and Hindi mainly. And you write in English. But, other than that do you find any similarity in the way you tell a story? Has he impacted your style?
Now you must bear with me as I talk about myself!
I am what I am as a writer because I was born in the household of Nabendu Ghosh – and here I am not talking of DNA or of dynastic inheritance. As I have said before, our house was full of books and I grew up leafing through them even when I didn’t know whether they were in English, Bengali or Hindi. I had a lovely childhood reading Bengali ‘kishore sahitya’ – literature for young readers – as much as Enid Blyton, Mark Twain, Phantom and Amar Chitra Katha comics. At BES School in Dadar, we annually celebrated Saraswati Puja by ‘publishing’ a handwritten magazine of stories and essays by the students – and that was my haatey khari — initiation as a writer. Here too, I would discuss a story idea and my father would tell me how the characters would think or act, never how to write, what language to use or how to structure the story.
Perhaps that is why, although I scored the highest in our school when I matriculated in 1971, securing in 96 and 97 in Science and Math, I joined Elphinstone College, then celebrated for its Arts stream and Mastered in English and American literature, with the added advantage of fluidly moving from English to Bengali and Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. In other words, through Indian literary traditions as much as the wealth of world literature. That helped me to decide that I will make life either as a journalist or in academics, careers that would see me read and write every day.
It so happened that in 1978, when I returned from England after eight long months of holiday with my brother Dipankar, I applied for two jobs: a trainee sub-editor at Indian Express, and lecturer at the National College in Bandra – both at the instance of my friend Imran Merchant, erstwhile Editor of TV World. As life would have it, I got appointment letters from both, first from the daily, and a month later, from the college. I didn’t know which way to go, so I went to Ms Homai Shroff, then the head of the department for English in Elphinstone. When I told her my dilemma, she retorted: “What! You are already in journalism, and you want to move to academics? Don’t be stupid!” That decided it…
But let me add that eventually I did get to teach as well. Although for a short term, I was guest lecturer at Delhi University’s Kalindi College; I taught young entrants at the Times School of Journalism; I have been Mentor to Mass Com students at Lady Shriram College…
Journalism carried my name to virtually every corner of India. It gave me an opportunity to travel across the globe. It brought me into contact with the biggest names in the world of Arts – painting, music, dance, theatre, literature and of course cinema. All this made Baba happy and quietly proud. But he nursed one objection: “Journalism is short lived and mostly goes into highlighting other people’s achievement. In doing all this, you are expending your time and literary energy. Turn your attention to your own creative writing,” he would urge.
Similarity of style? I don’t think so since we were doing very different kind of writing. But impact, yes, and I have already said how.
What are your future plans? With translations? Films? Your own writing?
All of them. I plan to keep translating, and not just my father’s work. God willing, I will certainly make a few more films. I am halfway through Menaka to Mallika, a documentary study of dance in Hindi films. I hope to make a short feature on trafficking and a full length one on a father-daughter story. As for my own writing, there are talks of publishing them. Ambitious? Perhaps. But like my father I would like to read and write till the last day life grants me.
This interview was conducted online by Mitali Chakravarty.
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Rakhi Dalal reviews translated short stories of Nabendu Ghosh, which not only bring to life history as cited in his Bangiya Sahitya Parishad Lifetime Achievement award but also highlights his ‘love for humanity‘
Title: Mistress of Melodies: Stories of Courtesans and Prostituted Women
Author: Nabendu Ghosh
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books, 2020
Mistress of Melodies:Stories of Courtesans and Prostituted Womenis acollection of six stories by Nabendu Ghosh in translation. It includes three translations by the editor Ratnottama Sengupta (Market Price, Dregs and Song of a Sarangi) and one each by Padmaja Punde (It Happened One Night) and Mitali Chakravarty (Anchor). The titular story was originally written in English by the author for a screenplay.
In the editorial note, Ratnottama Sengupta reflects upon the origin of the word prostitute from Latin word “prostitus” and asserts that its interpretation as “to expose publicly” or as “thing that is standing” does not have the abusive association usually identified with it. She refers to Rudyard Kipling’s short story, ‘On the City Wall’, for the denigrating connotation that the phrase “oldest profession”, a euphemism for the word prostitute, acquired later.
Treated as courtesans, as connoisseurs of arts, the women engaged in this oldest profession enjoyed high social standing in Mughal and Pre-Mughal era. Immensely trained in the fields of classical singing and dancing, their mannerism set a hallmark of etiquettes in society. It was only with the arrival of British that their institution gradually collapsed. The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 rang the death knell for courtesans’ art. With their wealth seized and places plundered, they were punished for their involvement in the rebellion. The coming of British crown further brought Victorian ideas of morality and women chastity, thereby pushing the courtesans to the lowest rungs of society.
‘Song of a Sarangi’, set in nineteenth century Calcutta some years subsequent to Sepoy Mutiny, effectively brings forth the world of ‘baijis’ (courtesans) who had set up their kothas (business cum residence) in some neighbourhoods and enjoyed patronage of rich seths and babus of the city. Theirs was a world brought to life every evening with thumris sung and dances performed on the thaap of tabla tuned to harmonium and sarangi. Though their art was appreciated during the times, their sustenance in society hanged by the delicate threads tugged in the hands of their patrons. Nabendu Ghosh, through the character of Hasina Bai of Chitpore, places to the forefront the struggle and subsequent misery of a mother after she auctions her adolescent daughter to the highest bidder and plunges straight into a nightmare which upturns her life.
The story ‘Market Price’ illustrates the misery of a young widow Chhaya, who is allured into a fake marriage and betrayed after she willingly gives away her fortune to the man she trusts. Her story against the backdrop of city of Kashi also symbolically represents the ordeal of being a widow in the society. In the story ‘It Happened One Night’, we witness Tagar, a woman forced into the profession, trying to make as much money as she can till she isn’t worn out. For, she cannot end up like ailing Radha who pushes herself to the edge of death to earn little that she could to feed herself. Through this story, the author also focuses on the issue of sleep deprivation and illness, which is a price the women engaged in prostitution pay for their living.
‘Dregs’, written in first person narrative, while chronicling the life of Basana who enters the profession due to hardships that she faced, also very convincingly portrays the detestation which women engaged in prostitution are subjected to in a social system. Set in the 1940s in Calcutta, the story navigates the life cycle of brave Basana who succumbs to the destitution she confronts when her paramour abandons her after she becomes a mother. On the other hand, it also takes the reader through the mind of narrator, revealing his revulsion for Basana which is not only due to her profession but also a result of his own sense of deprivation, originating from his poor circumstances. He desires her but cannot have her so he is repulsed by her presence. It is only towards the end when she appears wretched, that he feels pity for her. This conflict, as experienced by the narrator, is rendered with such subtlety that it allows for an effortless transition of the distinct emotions, leaving the reader spellbound by the sheer brilliance of author’s skill.
In the story ‘Anchor’, Fatima resorts to the profession in order to provide for her son but cannot bring herself to give in to a stranger. Her defiance springs from her strong sense of self respect which she guides with all her might after her husband’s death. Rustam, who comes to Fatima in desperation, lets her go when he notices her helplessness. Here in sketching his character, the author also brings to reader’s attention the sufferings endured by countless people in the aftermath of Bengal famine.
‘Mistress of Melodies’ is written on the life of famous Gauhar Jaan of Calcutta. The author wrote this in English as the first draft of a fuller screenplay. He was captivated by the larger than life persona of first Indian diva of Armenian origin, who was immortalised in the annals of history by being the first ever person to sing for a gramophone record in the country. A highly accomplished woman in the field of classical singing and dancing, Gauhar Jaan enjoyed a privileged life. The author writes about her celebrated life and about the love which left her aching, after the death of her beloved Nimai Sen, till the very end of her life.
These stories of courtesans, of those engaged in prostitution as well as of those pushed to the verge in a society, are not merely the stories of their struggles, sufferings or helplessness but are also accounts of their faith in love and in the inherent goodness of people. It is love which compels Hasina Bai to start life anew with Uday Moinuddin and make Tagar dream of a new life with Shashi, his pimp. It lets Rustam, a wanderer, to finally attempt new beginnings with Fatima, their common grief the anchor which brings them closer.
Remembering Nabendu Ghosh, on his birthday i.e. on 27 March in 2019, renowned writer of Bengali Literature, Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay said:
“I wish I had more Nabendu Ghosh novels back then, in 1940s, for he has written on almost every upheaval of that period: the Bengal Famine, the tram strike, the rationing of clothes, the Direct Action riots, rehabilitation of Partition victims… This was perhaps because he considered Literature to be a way of tackling all that is destructive in society, in life. He was writing out of love for humanity.”
And indeed the stories in this collection, emphatically proffer a testimony of his love for humanity. A love which compelled him to write about the women engaged in the ‘oldest profession’. He wrote to address the many woes that afflicted not only forlorn prostituted women but also well-off Courtesans. With his stories, he portrays the predicament of women dragged into the clutches of prostitution and also paints a world throbbing to the surs of ragas and taals of Kathak whose custodians were also the upholders of culture and its mores in the times bygone. Through these stories perhaps, their legacies and their contribution to culture will be remembered for times to come.
Nabendu Ghosh (1917-2007) was a dancer, novelist, short-story writer, film director, actor and screenwriter. His oeuvre of work includes thirty novels and fifteen collections of short stories, including That Bird Called Happiness: Stories, edited by Ratnottama Sengupta (Speaking Tiger, 2018). As scriptwriter, he penned cinematic classics such as Devdas, Bandini, Sujata, Parineeta, Majhli Didi and Abhimaan. And, as part of a team of iconic film directors and actors, he was instrumental in shaping an entire age of Indian cinema. He was the recipient of numerous literary and film awards, including the Bankim Puraskar, the Bibhuti Bhushan Sahitya Arghya, the Filmfare Best Screenplay Award and the National Film Award for Best First Film of a Director.
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and write books. Daughter of Nabendu Ghosh, she has written Krishna’s Cosmos, a biography of the pioneering printmaker Krishna Reddy, and also entries on Hindi films for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. In 2017, she directed And They Made Classics, a documentary about Nabendu Ghosh. She has recently edited That Bird Called Happiness (2018/ Speaking Tiger), Me And I (2017/ Hachette India), Kadam Kadam (2016/ Bhashalipi), Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh (2009/ Roshnai Prakashan).
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ . She lives with her husband and a teenage son, who being sports lovers themselves are yet, after all these years, left surprised each time a book finds its way to their home.
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Protima could not believe her eyes when she got back home from the shelter after the super cyclone had spent itself. Her milch cow was standing on the pukka road that led to the river Mani — one of the many arms of the Hooghly before it flows into the Bay of Bengal. Right next to the cow stood Lalu and Bhulu, the two pariah dogs who had made her courtyard their home. All three wagged their tails as she approached them. But she stopped short as she looked towards the pile of hay stacked next to her kuccha* hut: On top of the pile, were the hen and the ducks!
Protima was amazed. They had stood there all through the stormy night of rain and gale, as Amphan churned the water of the Bay and flooded the land on both sides of the river that flows 50 meters from her house. They did not run amok when the hurricane winds blew away the thatch roof off her mud walls…The television channels had been blurting the news for days and days that the government had alerted the state about the cyclone that was to land at a speed of 160 kmph. How fast is that? Who knows! Even cars, if they come to this remote corner of West Bengal, don’t run at more than 40 kmph.
The panchayat had organized for the villagers to seek shelter in the local school which was a double storeyed structure. That’s where Protima had followed her husband just before the wind started its tandava* in the afternoon; he with his nonagenarian father on his back, she holding the hands of her younger twins and her elder daughter clutching the free end of her sari. Only, even as they were fastening the doors before rushing out of the hut, she had unlocked the coop to let out the hens and untied the rope around the neck of the cow. That proved a saving stroke: the cow moved away from the house far enough to be safe from the flying roof, yet close enough for Protima to find her when she came back home.What is more, the two dogs followed the cow and not only kept her company — they even held on to her tail and sought the support of her hind legs to keep their noses in the air when the salt water of the ocean came riding the fresh waters in high tide.
Although it came up to her belly and chest, the cow stood stock still and did not kick the canine members of the assorted family. The ducks too did not ditch the hens. They could have paddled away in the flooding water. They didn’t. They inchoately knew that the hens do not swim. They had all come out of the coop and assembled on top of the haystack — quacking and clucking, clucking and quacking even when the birds on the swirling trees had stymied their cheeping.
Miles away from Raidighi, Protima’s mother Chhabi was reminded of the earlier severe cyclone Aila that had struck precisely eleven years ago. That day the second named cyclone of the North Indian Ocean had come at a speed of 110 kmph leaving a million souls homeless. That time too, all the members of her neighbour, Haran Sardar’s family had scurried off to seek the safety of the only concrete structure — the middle school — in the village on the vicinity of Gangasagar in the Sunderban region.
In the haste stemming from their anxiety, they didn’t notice that their father, an old man in his seventies, had lagged behind to secure their meagre belongings and beddings. However, as the strong winds coincided with the high tide, the water rose faster than he expected, and cut him off from the safe house. But Haran Khuro* was a wood cutter whose feats are still narrated to the younger lot. He looked around him and swiftly climbed up on the nearest tall tree and, at the fork of two sturdy branches, secured himself with his coarse cotton gamchha*.
A while later, as the swift waters rose further, he noticed a black keute — Bengal krait — emerge out of the whirling white and slither up the bark of the same Hetal tree. The old man at once untied his gamchha, clambered up a few notches and found himself a perch in the highest of boughs.
As the water kept rising higher still, he noticed a tiger emerge out of the cluster of Sundari trees. Swiftly, though, noiselessly the feline came and seated itself at the foot of the very same tree that had already given shelter to a venomous snake and and an infirm biped. “Oh God!” Haran Khuro thought to himself. “I climbed up the tree to be safe from the flood — but where can I go to save my life now?” Sheer helplessness got the better of him and he fainted then and there, fastened to the tree by the gamchha around his waist.
That may have saved his life. Or was it the innate instinct of animals — wild, venomous, or social — not to be hostile and fight with another being faced with the same wrath of Nature, but to live peaceably? For, two hours later, when the waters receded, the tiger ambled back into the forest, the keute slid down the tree trunk and returned to its hole in the ground; and Khuro‘s sons rowed down in a fishing boat with a search party looking for the father.
He? He was still tied to the tree with his worn-out gamchha…Young Sujata had yet another story about the coevality and harmonious sharing of the living space by the humans and wildcats of the region that is the breeding ground of crocodiles. Kaal Baisakhis are a routine feature here. These Nor’westers frequent the southern tip of Bengal in the summer months of April and May, often with violent hurricane-speed winds, causing tornadoes. Just before sunset or immediately after it thick dark clouds appear in the southern sky foretelling gale-speed winds and torrential rains.
After one such evening Sujata and her younger siblings had gone off to sleep on the floor of the hut while their parents had retired to the sole cot in the room after making their Grandpa comfortable in the apology for a veranda that had no side walls but still had a roof overhead. Next morning the mother was woken up by the old man’s voice. “Ei byata, where has this dog come in from? Jaa! Go make yourself comfortable elsewhere. Hey! Why lean on me? You’ll crush my frail bones by your weight! Go away…”Alarmed by the monologue, she hurriedly opened the door. And froze. Nudged by the sleepy old man, the cub Panthera Tigris had got to its feet and was stretching itself out of its slumber.
It turned its head at the sound of the door opening, looked into the eyes of the lady of the house that had sheltered him from thunderous sleet, and sauntered away towards the jungle…..As I listened to these ladies from Bon Bibi‘s* domain, a single line from the Hollywood movie Black Panther kept playing in my mind: ‘In times of crisis the wise build bridges while fools build barriers…’
How very true! In the face of tidal waves and hurricane winds, tigers and snakes, cows and dogs, hens and ducks exist in harmony. But our political netas?! They sharpen their knives and reach for arms. The BJPs and INCs, TMCs and CPMs, SJDs and DMKs, the Republicans and Democrats, the Tories and Labours of the world can’t stop bickering, they all try to score over their opponents. Why do they only think of fishing in troubled waters?
*Kuccha — impermanent, mud hut
*Tandava — Shiva’s dance of rage
*Khuro — Uncle
*Gamchcha — A light strong absorbent piece of cotton, often used like a towel
*Bon Bibi — Forest queen
*Netas — Politicians
Ratnottama Sengupta turned director with And They Made Classics, on the unique bonding between screenwriter Nabendu Ghosh and director Bimal Roy. A very senior journalist, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication students, writing books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. She has written on Hindi films for the Encyclopaedia Britannica; been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. The former Arts Editor of The Times of India is also a member of the NFDC’s script committee. Author of Krishna’s Cosmos and several other volumes, she has recently edited That Bird Called Happiness (2018/ Speaking Tiger), Me And I (2017/ Hachette India), Kadam Kadam (2016/ Bhashalipi), Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh (2009/ Roshnai Prakashan).
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.
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